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LGBT+ in engineering – the quest for equality

What is it like to be LGBT+ in 2018 and still find your career can stall because of hostility and discrimination in the workplace? Kelly Tyler, of our Corporate Communications Team, asks what can be done to make the engineering sector a more open and diverse place to work.

By The Corporate Communications Team - 17 December 2018

What would you do if your sector was losing a potential £11 billion a year through loss of productivity, but fewer than 9% of organisations within it were taking action to address the issue?

This is the current situation facing the engineering industry, which is failing to fully support LGBT+ workers.

The UK engineering sector needs to recruit more than 200,000 engineers every year between now
and 2024 in order to meet demand. Yet talented and skilled individuals who identify as LGBT+ are being put off entering the industry for fear of discrimination, and many already working in the sector feel they are forced to remain in the closet, resulting in an estimated productivity loss of billions of pounds to the UK economy each year.

Fear in the workplace

Of almost 7,000 engineers surveyed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, just 4% identified as LGBT+ and, according to a survey carried out this year by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, 29% of the participants in the LGBT+ community would not consider a career in the engineering profession for fear of discrimination.

Why is this the case?

“There is an inter-culture of homophobia in engineering professions,” says Professor Warren Manning, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Engineering and Technology at the University of Derby.

“A study by Construction News found that 28% of LGBT+ workers in the construction industry had experienced inappropriate and offensive comments about their gender or sexuality in the workplace, which is staggering.

“The culture in the engineering industry is one of the reasons why high-quality engineers feel they are not able to come out of the closet. There is a stereotype that engineering is a macho industry, which is most prolific in the construction sector. Offensive comments or ‘banter’, as it is often seen as, does happen and is often swept under the rug.

“One of the starkest facts for me is that having been in academia for 25 years, working with close to 500 people in engineering, I have never met an open LGBT+ engineering academic during that period of time.”

Hayley Barnden is a Safety Engineer at Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S). She came out as a lesbian in the first year of her apprenticeship but said she was concerned her sexuality would create a barrier to career progression, and was fearful she would be bullied.

“I was afraid that if my supervisor had an issue with my sexual orientation, they could have a major impact on my career, by either not giving me good work for my portfolio, or by providing a bad report at the end,” explains Hayley.

“As an apprentice, I moved teams a lot, so forming good working relationships to get the best opportunities was important. I was afraid other team members would have a problem with me being gay, and would prevent these working relationships from forming.

“And then there was the fear of being bullied and called names, and all the other homophobic things that occur elsewhere in LGBT+ people’s lives.”

A closed shop

Surveys have shown that around half of LGBT+ people employed in engineering are now choosing to remain closeted, and that the side effects of the stress that is felt when trying to disguise sexuality can take up to 12 years off an individual’s life.

And not only is there a psychological case for the issue of diversity to be addressed in the sector, there is a serious business case too. The Royal Academy of Engineering found engineers who feel included are 80% more likely to report increased motivation and 68% increased performance.

In 2015, Engineering Action: Tackling Homophobia in Engineering, a report by Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke, co-authored by Dr Mark McBride-Wright, co-founder of InterEngineering, estimated that the industry is losing a potential £11 billion a year, owing to a 30% loss in the productivity of LGBT+ engineers who feel forced to remain in the closet.

Warren says this is a “severe risk” to the industry. “There is a shortage of engineers across all levels nationally and the gap is growing, so there has never been a greater need to have engineers in the UK,” he explains.

“The doors should be open to recruiting the best quality engineers and creating environments where people can be themselves and work to their full potential.

“If we are going to come through Brexit and have a more powerful economy, we need to be tapping into our best talent.”

Jo Foster, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, agrees.

“The UK engineering industry needs to recruit approximately 203,000 skilled engineers, every year between now and 2024, to meet demand,” she explains.

“The shortfall doesn’t help, but it does emphasise the importance of embracing equality, diversity and inclusion, and showing that the profession is inclusive and promotes equal opportunity for all.”

So, what can be done to help tackle the situation?

Opening up

Mark, who is also Managing Director of Equal Engineers – a company which works to create inclusive engineering and technology organisations by increasing the diversity of the workforce and improving stakeholder health and wellbeing – said organisations need to understand the numbers of LGBT+ staff they employ to determine how effective their current equality and diversity polices are.

“We do not know exactly how many people are LGBT+ in the engineering industry; what we find is anecdotal data.

“In no other scenario – whether that’s environmental, safety or quality management – would you make decisions based on no research or figures. How do you know how many people you are dealing with?This is a fundamental problem.

“Companies are nervous and confused about what they can collect data-wise and then what to do with the data. They need to become more comfortable asking the uncomfortable questions, and have confidence in incorporating diversity into their business strategies “

The engineering industry is trying but not hard enough. It’s going to take the current and future engineers really pushing it for it to be taken seriously. As the issue is hard to quantify, people have difficulty in knowing how to address the situation.”

According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Skills and Demand in Industry Survey, fewer than one in 10 businesses (9%) take particular action to encourage underrepresented groups into their workforce.

Engaging supply chains and smaller businesses so they are raising awareness of equality and inclusion is a key starting point, says Mark.

“We need to be more collaborative and joined up. Companies need to engage with their supply chains and encourage them to do more diversity and inclusion work. It may not be that they do not have intent – they may not have capacity.

“However, a lot of work needs to be done at a higher government level in order for the UK to see a culture change.

“When the government’s green paper for the Industrial Strategy was announced, I searched for the words diversity, equality and inclusion and there was not one mention, yet the word innovation was included 125 times.

How can you have such a fundamental paper but diversity does not appear?

“This is not an isolated case; there is a whole plethora of missed opportunities in policy papers and parliamentary manifestations.

“So, do we force companies to legislate and make diversity happen, or do we try and encourage them to be proactive and make pledges where there is no real accountability?”

Role models required

The Stonewall Workplace Equality Index is the definitive benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on lesbian, gay, bi and trans inclusion in the workplace. Currently, no engineering firms appear in the Top 100 Employers for 2018.

Hayley said role models are needed to address the issue. “As a female engineer, I still struggle to find senior role models,” she says.

“As a lesbian engineer, I can probably only name one or two people who I see as representative of me and where I would like my career to go.

“It’s not a secret that the engineering industry has a lack of diversity in many areas, such as the small amount of female professionals operating within this industry; however, other areas have been more actively and publicly tackled than LGBT+ diversity.

“The engineering industry needs to be more active in engaging the LGBT+ community: show up and sponsor your local Pride events, attend LGBT+ events and careers fairs, use social media, and talk about LGBT+ History Month and other key awareness days.

“The onus is very much on our industry to get out there and challenge the current perception that engineering isn’t LGBT+ inclusive.”

Encouraging children to take up science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at an early age is key to promoting equality and diversity in the engineering sector, adds Jo.

“The earlier a child can be introduced to STEM, the more chance there is for them to consider that option as a career choice. Studies show that children start to make decisions regarding gender roles from as young as three. These decisions may impact what career a child may go into when they are older.”

Finding allies

To be able to fully support LGBT+ in the workplace, a transparent environment needs to be created. The University of Derby has an active LGBT+ Allies staff network, and hosted a regional LGBT+ conference, with network partners, earlier this year.

“Organisations have to create an environment where people feel they can come out and be comfortable,” says Warren.

“Universities should be leading on this. We need to make sure that students don’t go back into the closet once they leave university. It’s one thing helping people to come out, but we have got to make sure that remains when they go into work.”

There are strong examples of companies across the sector who are addressing LGBT+ issues and adopting policies and strategies. The Institution of Engineering and Technology has recently developed an Equality, Diversion and Inclusion strategy, which aims to promote inclusivity within engineering and equal opportunities for all.

“Some companies really are doing amazing work,” said Hayley. “Airbus, Rolls-Royce, BuroHappold, DE&S, Babcock, and BAE Systems are just a few of the organisations I’ve worked with in the last year on promoting LGBT+ awareness.

“While initially I was afraid, I would say that every fear I’ve had about coming out at work has proved to be unfounded. I’ve never faced any negative reactions because of my sexual orientation and when other people have had issues, my organisation has always been very supportive.”

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About the author

The Corporate Communications Team
University Press and PR

The Corporate Communications Team manage the University's Press and PR, putting forward academics, support staff and student representatives for 'expert comment' on different topics to local and national broadcast media. The team is highly experienced in communications and journalism - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as in-house and agency public relations.